Project Based Learning in the Middle School Classroom


Project Based Learning.  Everyone is talking about it.  Probably because it’s a great way to get kids to care about learning.  But where do you start? What should you do? How do you find something that kids are going to get behind?


In my classroom, I use entrepreneurship.  We start out working with Junior Achievement. They are an awesome group that sends local businesspeople into classrooms to teach lessons about money and economincs, for free!  Check them out here:

They do a “start your own business” unit that sets things up well for my students.  


Once they have the basics, it’s time to step it up with some competition.  I’m lucky because in my area, there is an economic development group that sponsors a startup challenge for middle school and high school kids each year.  They hold it in a venue that typically hosts these kinds of events and secure sponsors who pay for everything, including fabulous cash prizes. However, when I started doing this, I actually just did it in my middle school library and invited the local chamber of commerce to come and hand out fake money to the kids as investors.  

Step one: help students decide what their business will be.  I try to guide them toward something they know about – pets are a perennial favorite, as well as lawnmowing and babysitting.  However, I have also had students invent something to sell or bake cookies or cupcakes.


Step two: guide students through writing up a business plan.  Check out my templates (which I give the students to help them understand what to do) here: _Youth Startup Challenge Business Plan

Step three: help students revise and edit their business plan.  This takes quite a while and involves a certain amount of math as they figure out their profit and expenses.  They tend to want to guess at how much things will cost and how much they will make, so I have to really hold them accountable for showing me where their numbers come from.


Step four: once the business plans are complete and well-done, they start on a display.  We use computer generated items for their displays. Google drive and are both great tools for creating the items to put on their display boards.


Step five: Start filling up the display board.  We use the tri-fold boards for our displays. I also have students use construction paper as a background for the graphics.  This gives a nice frame around each item and draws the eye in. I have them choose 1-2 colors to use for all of their display items.  That way, it’s more cohesive,


Step six: create business cards.  We use google slides for this. They create a slide which is their business card, then duplicate it six times.  Then, when printing, select handouts – six slides per page. This gives the correct size and ratio for the cards without having to do a lot of messing around on the computer.


Finally, hold your competition.  Invite the school board, parents, local business people, city council, the mayor – anyone who might come and oooh and ahh over your students’ work.  


Why do this sort of project?  It’s meaningful. Kids are more likely to revise and edit a paper that is going to get them into a competition than one that is just being read by an overworked teacher.  


It’s educational.  Students are learning more than just how to start a business.  They are learning graphic design, public speaking, teamwork, and written communication.  This is in addition to the experience they get from examining what makes a good business.  The analytical skills used in this project more than meet the common core standards.


It’s fun.  The kids are excited to work on it each day, which makes my job so much easier.  Instead of groaning when it’s time to do classwork, they beg for more time.


Other suggestions for success:

Teach students how to shake hands and introduce themselves.  One aspect of our work that gets the most comments at our Startup Challenge is the way the students interact with the adults.

I teach them the 10-4 rule: when an adult is 10 feet away from you, make eye contact.  When they are 4 feet away from you, reach out to shake their hand, saying “Hi, I’m ___ and I’m the CEO (or whatever title) of ___”.  


Read The Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen to the students as you work through this project.  This book has a ton of economics based terms in it and explains them all through the story about a boy who starts a lawn mowing business.  Alternatively, there is The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies. Both books are great to use as you move through this project.





Expect this to take a while.  We typically start in early January and are ready for the competition in late March.  It takes about 6 weeks to get the business plans completed, revised and edited. Then, it takes another 6 weeks to get the displays ready to go.  This included the time practicing what they will say about their business in their “pitch”.


Be sure to invite your principal to your showcase.  It’s always fun for the principal to see what students can accomplish!


I have included links to the different templates I use throughout the unit below.  I have found the more structure I give the kids, the better. Since this is something of a new concept for them, extra help in setting it all up is best.

Display Boards

Business Presentation to Judges

Business Paragraph

Business Expo Display

Financial Summary Worksheet – Product

Financial Summary Worksheet – Service

Starting a Business

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